Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Spring 1861: Change Marches Into Wilkesboro, N.C.

Only a year had passed since the Declaration of Independence shook the world in 1776 when Wilkes County, flung across the edge of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, took shape. A fledgling government formed in the “Mulberry Hills” land that Moravians had acquired in 1752 from the Cherokee Nation. By 1801, Wilkesboro, the new county seat, boasted a courthouse at the center of a 50-acre public square. A sprinkling of public buildings, stocks and a brick jailhouse - soon to hold Confederate supplies and Union prisoners - opened for business.

My Civil War odyssey along the paths of my Confederate ancestors this week takes me to Wilkesboro. I began my online journey recently in my current hometown, Columbia, S.C.

Today, several buildings survive, including the old jail, where the murderer Tom Dula (later immortalized in song as Tom Dooley) served time; the 1849 St. Paul's Episcopal Church; and the Robert Cleveland House, circa 1770. The second generation of the Revolutionary War-era “Tory Tree” now stands in a grass circle surrounded by paved streets in what once was the public square. The 20-foot black oak sapling recalls the tree where captured military Tories (British loyalists) were hanged.

Go to PHOTO page for more on Wilkesboro.

The old Tory Oak (photo, right, taken at a 1915 Confederate Veterans Reunion) still whispered tales of Revolutionary heroism when my Confederate ancestor, Lyndon McGee Welborn, gathered in the public square.

It was May 31, 1861, right after North Carolina became the tenth southern state to leave the Union. Lyndon came to the town along the Yadkin River with other mountain men from Wilkes and surrounding counties. They were answering a call that would change their lives, their homeland and America forever.

From my book-in-progress, “Dear Father I’m Sorry To Tell You:” (Copyright B.J. Welborn. Book excerpt cannot be reproduced or reposted in any way without the written permission of B.J. Welborn.)

In spring 1861, on sacred soil of the great Cherokee Nation, in the fabled land of Daniel Boone, where the world’s first-known Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker retired to bucolic peace and married mountain-girl sisters, an important gathering took place shortly after spring crops had been planted.

One of western North Carolina’s most prominent citizens, Montford Sidney Stokes Jr., had organized a rally in Wilkesboro, county seat of Wilkes County. Stokes called the rally to attract recruits to the forming Confederate army.

Stokes, son of a Revolutionary War POW, was a former U.S. senator and North Carolina governor. Stokes’ longtime friend, James Byron Gordon, a large landowner regarded as Wilkes County’s most successful businessman, joined Stokes' endeavor.

Troops from Southern states that had joined the Confederacy before North Carolina finally had come around already were converging in the South’s big cities, preparing for battle. Equally enthusiastic Northern troops poured into Washington. Hundreds of North Carolina men bucked the Southern tide and signed up with the Union. This was not an unexpected development in the long, narrow state where internal political battles between the wealthy, plantation-elite in the East and the independent farmers of the West had raged since Colonial days.

Now, as North Carolina began to break its Union shackles, the state's East-West split intensified, as did the Old North State's battle for young warriors.

Stokes, born on his family plantation, Mourne Rouge, fifty years before the Wilkesboro rally, was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. In the war with Mexico, he had distinguished himself as an able, courageous and popular officer of the N.C. Volunteers. When the Mexican-American War ended, his men presented Stokes with a gold-and-silver sword in a show of their admiration.

(Courthouse building today, above left, houses Wilkes Heritage Museum.)

A tall, athletic man, self-consciousness about his size, Stokes was an outgoing and prosperous farmer, courteous to everyone, including his slaves. The people of Wilkes County, flung across the rolling eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, regarded Stokes as the consummate Southern Gentleman.

Gordon, a thirty-nine year old merchant of Scottish stock, had a nose for politics, an eye for possibilities and a mouth cursed by a stutter. He had vigorously represented his Wilkes County brethren in the state legislature in Raleigh. His grateful constituents considered Gordon a gallant genius and a courtly wizard of mercantile, and they awarded him their trust and respect, something mountain people meted out reluctantly.

Irish, German and especially English emigrants, intoxicated with freedom, land and dreams, first settled Wilkes County. The settlers of English descent came largely from other colonies. These Englishmen included the Wellborne family of Virginia, whose members rose to political and commercial influence and had intertwined with the Stokes family through marriage.

The Wilkes County settlers staked land claims, toiled their hilly farms, and fought indigenous Indians until the Red Man virtually fled the valley. In 1777, soon after the cannons of the Revolutionary War roared, a county government formally took shape. The county took its name to honor an infamous English politician of the era, John Wilkes, member of the British Parliament and son of a wealthy whiskey distiller.

Whether an irony or a consequence, America would later dub Wilkes County the “Moonshine Capital of the World” for its illegal white lightning brewed in clandestine stills. (Heritage Museum display below.)

In England, John Wilkes had criticized his country's controlling Tory party and championed American independence. As a journalist, he fought for the right of voters to directly elect representatives to the House of Commons and for printers to publish verbatim accounts of Parliamentary debates, a courageous public call for freedom of the press.

Wilkes, despite his reputation as the ugliest man in England, exuded personal charm and political charisma and excelled at snappy repartee. He boasted it "took only half an hour to talk away my face.” Eventually Wilkes’s radical and sometimes violent tendencies subsided with age. His popularity waned. He lost his seat in Parliament and retired. He died in 1797.

Englishmen who settled across the Atlantic hailed Wilkes as a hero who suffered for freedom, something worshiped in the states. South Carolina’s assembly voted to help pay off Wilkes’s political debts. American parents named their children after him. One baby boy with the surname Booth would grow up to become a matinee idol and President Lincoln's assassin.

Many Revolutionary War heroes, protagonists in their own tales of valor, had once called Wilkes County home. In 1861, it was amid legacies of patriotism that Sidney Stokes and J.B. Gordon addressed the mountain boys who restlessly gathered in Wilkesboro’s public square, including 21-year-old Lyndon McGee Welborn. Lyndon had traveled from rural Wilkes County, where he worked near or on a farm owned by his oldest brother Elijah. He had come to Wilkes County with a younger brother, Frederick, from his father's Yadkin Valley farm where he was born.

Stokes and Gordon called for warriors willing to lay down their lives for the Confederate cause. They couldn't have known that both of them, as well as almost every one of the more than one hundred men gathered in the town square, including Lyndon, were destined to die in battle before war’s end.

But on that fine May day in Wilkesboro, cursing and liquor flowed as freely as speechifying and bravado. Recorded one rally participant, “at least 1/2-dozen fights broke out.”

QUESTION: WAS THE CIVIL WAR INEVITABLE? Robert Penn Warren said in his book "The Legacy of the Civil War," (highly recommended) that the Civil War was America's first big test of the virtues embodied in the U.S. Constitution. He wrote that the Founding Fathers' "vision had not been finally submitted to the test of history. There was little awareness of the cost of having a history.....(The vision) became a reality, and we became a nation, only with the Civil War." Go to COMMENT page to answer.